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In Terri, the Ache of Our Former Selves

By Alice Gregory
Friday, July 8th, 2011

Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in "Terri."

It’s not often that we’re genuinely forced to remember the worst time in our life. In most movies that depict the daily horror of high school, we’re meant to relate to the characters’ distress and feel sorry for them — not for our former selves. These movies may evoke rusty aches and pains, but seldom do they make us vicariously relive the entire experience.

Azazel Jacobs’ new film Terri is different though. In it we remember just how miserable it was to only-almost be a person — and one we didn’t even like at that. Jacob Wysocki plays the title role; he’s a neckless teenager, friendless at first, who pads around in pajamas and enjoys killing mice. He lives with his dying Uncle James (played — unrecognizably — by Creed Bratton of The Office) and is a general vision of unalloyed pity. Kids make fun of him at school in that doubly cruel way of inflicting pain for nothing more than their own entertainment — woofing, pounding his shoulders, and calling him names as though cheering for a sports team. His teachers seem oblivious to the dynamic (in one particularly wretched scene, the bell rings, and Terri walks out of class, momentarily turning to his homeroom teacher for at least a glance of recognition, and she doesn’t even look up).

John. C. Reilly plays Mr. Fitzgerald, the assistant principal and ad-hoc guidance counselor for the school’s most monstrous students. After spotting Terri in the hall one day and assuming the obvious — no friends, little ambition — he calls him in to his office and schedules weekly Monday meetings: “We’ll check in with each other, see how we’re faring against the world.” The first-person plural sounds patronizing — to us and to Terri — but soon it becomes obvious that Mr. Fitzgerald means it literally. We don’t usually expect vulnerability from authority figures. Teachers don’t often disclose their own after-school suffering to their students, and so many of us never see our parents cry.  But emotional transparency is best cultivated mutually between two people, in a back-and-forth dance of confidence and candor. It’s Mr. Fitzgerald’s disclosures and desperation that make him a figure of possible trust, and soon Terri considers him his close and only friend.

But Terri is horrified to learn who else at school has weekly meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald — a boy in a wheel chair and another with Downs Syndrome among them — and feels betrayed when he hears from Chad, a reedy trichotillomanic, that Mr. Fitzgerald’s shares secrets with all his students. It takes Mr. Fitzgerald’s genuine regret to bring Terri back. “Life’s a mess, dude,” Fitzgerald sighs regretfully, “but we’re all just doing the best we can.”

Terri is inadvertently responsible for the ruining — and subsequent saving — of Heather, the most popular girl in school (are all Heathers pretty?). An unexpected figure of public shaming, Heather is suddenly on a rung of the social ladder closer to Terri’s, and they forge a friendship. We see Terri change, though slowly and minutely. His transformation (no more mice-killing, finally has companionship) is rendered brilliantly. It’s incremental and almost invisible. Terri’s gait switches only subtly, and from a distance — even to us at times — he looks the same. But Wysocki convinces us that what might appear as pale improvement, is, in fact, a major physic shift. The immense dissonance of overwhelming emotions and their almost unnoticeable manifestation is impossible to portray without first-person monologues, but in Terri there are none. It’s hard to tell whether this is a testament to Wysocki’s acting or Jacob’s directing. It’s probably a bit of both.

Though the film is mostly just a portrait of a good guy as a young man, it ventures to speak grim truths about high school, which older viewers — especially female ones — hopefully only half-remember. That Heather could be so quickly and completely destroyed is an indicator of the still-terrible state of adolescent girlhood and our hypocritical attitude towards teenage sexuality. So precipitous a social decline could never happen to a boy. Heather ends up as untouchable as Terri, and though undoubtedly their shared caste benefits them both in the end (the friendship is pure and good), their powerlessness as fellow suffers still seems symptomatic of something really devastating.

Terri is listed as a comedy, and there are funny parts (John C. Reilly giving a pep talk could never be anything else), but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing it and not leaving the theater with a deep sigh and a profound sense of relief.  If Terri is a comedy, it’s only in the more technical sense of the term. It doesn’t conclude in marriage or anything, but the bad memories it conjures do make adulthood look fantastic by comparison.  There’s no happy ending — there isn’t much of an ending at all — but there is an assurance of one, and in the biography of any viewer over 18, its promise is fulfilled. It really does get better!

Terri is playing at the Angelika Film Center, at the corner of  Mercer and Houston.

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Defending the Times, David Carr Saves Page One

By Alice Gregory
Friday, June 24th, 2011

New York Times media reporter David Carr in "Page One"

It’s surprising that some media geek hasn’t already uploaded all the sequences of Page One that feature David Carr into a single, streaming video. Surely, it’s coming. For all its flaws, Andrew Rossi’s much-discussed, all-access documentary about the New York Times is worth seeing if only for those parts. Carr, the former coke-addict-turned-ace-media-reporter is the film’s star, and he shines so bright as to all but blind us from the narrative sloppiness that surrounds him. Carr’s personality is so big that merely putting him in front of the camera is enough to transform him into a sort of character. He describes his own past as “textured,” but he’s also the paper’s foremost defender, something that comes across most vividly in a ruthless interview with the publishers of Vice and a conference takedown of Newser founder Michael Wolff.

If you wanted to divert a teenage boy from fruitless hobbies, you could expose him to a few minutes of Carr and instantly change the course of his life. Carr types, tweets, chain smokes, and wears promotional polar fleece. Mountain Dew bottles litter his desk, and he takes notes on whatever flat surface seems to be in front of him. He swears. He interrupts interviews to rip his subjects new ones. Carr’s famously shredded voice sounds like one of those dogs with their vocal cords removed. It almost hurts to listen to him. But seeing him interrogate Tribune Company execs over the phone is better than a boxing match. Carr elevates media reporting from the realm of gossip, where it often lives.  (For more explanation and less idolatry, read Tom McGeveran’s long and excellent profile of Carr in Capital New York.)

But the Page One scenes without Carr in them sink into chaos and mild tedium. The other members of the media desk come off comparatively charmless, and we don’t really get a definite sense of what they’re doing throughout the day.

The film opens with shots of the paper’s printing presses reeling and spinning. Gears grind and sheets fold. It’s a false set-up, though, one that primes us for more industry cross-sections than the film really delivers. That the New York Times gets written and edited and printed and distributed every single day is honestly just incredible, but Page One doesn’t pay due credit to the product. When we sit back into after those opening shots, we expect a literal and chronological account of just how the hell this thing happens 365-day-a-year without fail. But the most common complaint about the doc — that it’s a structural mess — is hard to dispute: Instead we get a lot of disjointed narratives and a sycophantic ending.

Either Rossi got extremely lucky in the making of the Page One or a lot of less-compelling months are edited out of it. The Iraq War “ends” on Rossi’s watch, and its Wikileaks cables make the front page for nine days running. These events and how they are handled by top editors are supposedly the meat of the film — the historical examples through which we are to see how the paper works: how pitches are received, assignments given, space allotted, layout decided upon. In a ferocious review in the New York Times itself, Michael Kinsey complains that after having the film he didn’t “know much more than [he] did before.”  This is true: we see a few 10:30 pitch meetings, a lot of scurrying around about lunch time, and then a few 4:30 meetings in which Executive Editor Bill Keller decides what goes on A01, which, when muttered amidst the frantic concerns of the day sounds more like a military command than a page number. But walking out of Page One not knowing much more than you did before might actually be the film’s main conceptual asset, even if incidental.

It’s doubtful that a tedious rehashing of any single day in the newsroom would tell us anything very revealing about how things work over at 620 8th Avenue. When people pick up their copy of the paper in the morning — any paper, but especially the New York Times — they’re reading something that is more than the sum of its bylines. It would seem that to explain the daily mechanics of the paper might require more minutae than we could endure. That, apart from Carr, we don’t hear the sort of salty phone calls we want from the bullpen (“Listen, no, no, give this to me straight….”) is no surprise; certainly, many of the daily exchanges that make up a work day are conducted through email now, a medium far less conducive to filming. And in truth, Times staffers probably go home every single day amazed and relieved that everything came together as it did —  that their article is in the morning’s paper, that there’s full section at all.

A bit of b-roll of the Gawker offices after an interview with its founder Nick Denton is a subtle but effective reminder of just what a different beast reporting is from commentary and aggregation. During the course of the film, business media reporter Tim Arango is sent to Iraq (his appointment as Baghdad Bureau Chief is written in the epilogue), and that sub-narrative alone should chasten any viewer still skeptical of the new Times paywall. The takeaway is clear: Of course we pay for this. There are people here working all night and risking their lives – if only for that, we pay.

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Geeks, Balloons, and Beautiful Objects: Five Books for the Big Screen

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Last August, Deadline broke the news that Scott Rudin had bought the rights to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Almost a decade earlier, he bought the rights to The Corrections, which has yet to be filmed. (In both cases, the deal was sealed before the books’ official publication dates.) A month later, Lane Brown did some investigating for New York‘s Vulture and compiled a list of titles on Rudin’s “bookshelf.” It’s a pretty impressive roster, but here are five books the mogul’s missing:

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
In an effort to save their failing carnival, an enterprising couple of circus freaks ingests radioactive drug cocktails and breeds a menagerie of grotesqueries — amphibious hybrids, an albino dwarf, Siamese twins. There was a play in 2004, but some carefully deployed CGI might really up the ante here. In a pair of opposing perfect worlds, either Werner Herzog or John Waters would spearhead this. But even the worst-case scenario isn’t so bad: a more mainstream Francis Lawrence looking for a Water for Elephants corrective. It would be best if the leads were unknown but surrounded by a cast of peripheral Creepy-Eyed Actors (Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Justin Bartha, Rory Culkin, Keegan Allen).

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
That this hasn’t yet been optioned is just bizarre, considering both the creator and the content. It’s easy to imagine a pitch meeting just humming with buzzwords. “The Devil Wears Prada”! Price fixing! Felony! The narrator is a classic cipher, mostly voiceover, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt could make a nice, fawning nonentity. You’d want a female lead with just enough — but not too much — spunk; Lacey Yaeger is striving but also a little smarmy. She’s smart and subtle. Someone with darting eyes… Kristen Bell, perhaps?

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The nastily-named Undine Spragg — a perennially unsatisfied siren of “almost crude” beauty — is totally compelling despite her ceaseless pining, secret cheating, heartless spawning, and hasty divorcing. The very definition of “piss poor morally,” Undine’s shallow, wicked impulses make her a subject fit more for Cary Fukungana than Merchant Ivory. Scarlett Johansson could do the overripe role justice. Undine’s male conquests serve mostly to provoke her ire and greed, but the important one to nail down is Elmer Moffat, the repellant man from her past; let’s get Evan Handler in here.

The Conclave by Michael Bracewell
Martin and Marilyn aspire obsessively towards the best that a gilded 1980s London has to offer — filagreed china, bespoke suits, olives. But the urban aesthetes lead a predictably empty life, whose ups and downs correlate exactly to those of the stock market. There are healthy doses of conspicuous consumption, indulgent melancholy, and unbridled narcissism. It’s an allegory that could go real dark, real fast on screen. Do not allow Sofia Coppola to get her hands on this one; hire Todd Haynes instead. Ideally, this would be poorly acted.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
Big View Pictures already owns the film rights, but the project seems to have been in the only-early stages of development for quite a while now. William Waterman Sherman, a retired school teacher sets off to circumnavigate the globe in a giant hot air balloon but wrecks on Krakatoa. He discovers that the island is populated by twenty international families who are excavating a secret diamond mine. The society is whimsically utopian: Their calendar is based on a Byzantine dining schedule and the houses are furnished with all manner of fantastic amusement. When the island’s famous volcano inevitably erupts, everyone escapes by balloon… naturally. Where is Wes Anderson on this?  Fingers crossed for Jim Belushi as Professor Sherman.

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Jeff Bewkes and Joe Roth Talk Business with Charlie Rose

By Alice Gregory
Friday, April 29th, 2011

Jeff Bewkes

On Wednesday afternoon, with humidity pushing 90%, men in damp blazers and women with wilted blowouts lined up outside of the SVA theater in Chelsea for “The Business of Entertainment,” one of the panels in the Tribeca Talks Industry series at the Tribeca Film fest. There were fewer tote bags and more briefcases. Blackberries — not iPhones — buzzed. The auditorium filled up quickly with buttoned-up professionals taking the afternoon off to hear interviews with Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner and Joe Roth, the legendary Hollywood producer, director, and studio head. I sat next to a JFK, Jr. look-alike, who would have impressed me more if it weren’t for the eclipsing charisma of the afternoon’s moderator, an especially twinkly Charlie Rose.

Rose and Bewkes had an easy rapport, which the two jokingly chalked up to their shared but brief history on Wall Street. “I’m sixty. I’m actually sixty-one, but I spent a year in banking,” Bewkes cracked, quoting Tennessee Williams. As CEO of Time Warner, Bewkes is also in charge of Warner Bros., Turner Broadcasting, HBO, and Time Inc. Fellow luminary Brian Grazer has referred him as “the last mogul.” But each of these industries — film production, television programming, print journalism — as Bewkes explained, is linked now by questions about (and hopefully answers to) digital distribution. Their conversation was predicable, but vibrant. It was obvious that Rose was consciously protracting certain parts of the discussion for the sake of the audience; clearly he already knew the answers to most of his questions — as he should, considering how intertwined their lines of work are. They talked about how hard it is to support niche content with advertising, how piracy could be prevented if only there wasn’t a four-month interim between the theater release of a movie and its in-store and online distribution, and the wise decision to produce exclusive content for Netflix, a company whose surprising success Bewkes compared to a small Albanian army. Later, he would describe the internet as “a bunch of hamsters wearing ties.”

Joe Roth

After a few swigs from a sweaty bottle of Smartwater, Rose introduced Joe Roth, whose credits include Home Alone, The Sixth Sense, and Alice in Wonderland. Roth smiled, sat down, slumped a little, and almost immediately kicked off his right shoe. He explained what, as a producer, he looks for in a script (a blend of uniqueness and familiarity) and gave a quick recap of his own personal history in the business, which really took off when Rupert Murdoch anointed him chairman of Fox at 38-years-old, after only one short meeting. “I could have been an axe murderer,” he laughed and recalled how Murdoch’s house had a fireplace bigger than any apartment Roth had ever been in.

Alluding to Bewkes’ optimism, Roth confirmed that as a director, “you can ask for almost anything right now.” The winners, he continued, talking now about producers, “are the guys who [can] see it.” According to both panelists, the future of film and television is bright. Roth’s quips were pegged to his own experiences: the flimsiness of most sequels, the sick dread he feels while driving to the first screening of a movie about which he knows he’s made too many compromises. Roth’s real bone to pick with the industry though was with the concept of “middlemen,” which apparently take all shapes and prevent production studios from profiting as much as they otherwise would. “Producers should buy theaters,” Roth said in voice a bit louder than before. “95% of a movie’s gross is achieved in the first 30 days.” Exasperated, he listed a few suggestions: that theaters could be dressed up, that ticket prices could fluctuate depending upon the success of the movie, and that merchandise could be sold right in front of the box office.

In what was likely an effort to mitigate some of Bewkes’ zealotry, Rose began ribbing the CEO gently, encouraging Bewkes to facetiously confirm that he also wrote all the movies he produced. We all giggled. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience caught on Roth’s other ‘zany’ idea: imagining those 7-Elevens turned into Kwik-E-Marts for the release of The Simpsons Movie. And then the New York equivalent: The Lower East Side dressed up as its circa-1988 self for the inevitable Grand Theft Auto-Liberty City movie.

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Le Quattro Volte’s Wordless Thrill

By Alice Gregory
Friday, April 22nd, 2011

I was instructed not to read anything about Le Quattro Volte before seeing it. This was clearly strategy on the part of my companion to get me to go at all. The film had come highly recommended to him by a trusted source, but any descriptive detail he could have relayed would have deterred me: no dialogue, lots of animals. But director Michelangelo Frammartino’s close visual attention to — and quiet dramatization of — Calabrian village life is actually thrilling.

The title, which translates to “The Four Times,” chronicles the final days of an ancient goatherd; the birth and first weeks of a fleecy kid; the sacrifice of a tree in a mysterious, local ceremony; and the involved and quite artful process of making charcoal. The elliptical structure (what we see first and last are hazy plumes of smoke emitted from a mound of burning wood) is even more effective for its focus on the carbon-rich, literally organic, sooty lumps — life, concentrated.

In keeping with the elemental culture it dramatizes, Le Quattro Volte subscribes to a kind of realist ideal that says that anyone can be a hero, if you only pay careful enough attention. Focusing on small gestures and granting authority to the oft-ignored isn’t a radical project, but Frammartino practices it with particularly elegant proportion. The goatherd’s hacking cough elicits irritation and sympathy in equal measure, as does the kid’s relentless bleating when he’s stuck in an excruciatingly shallow ravine. We watch the nonplussed faces of both man and animal as a fly quivers across them, undisturbed for minutes. Everything takes on a life worth observing. The goats in the barn develop unique personalities and are genuinely funny in their seemingly unmotivated behavior: balancing for no good reason on teetering cinderblocks and splitting off from the herd in severe right angles. Even a hacked-down tree and a charred pile of dirt, if given enough time in front of the camera, can be animated. Our threshold for theatrics adjusts surprisingly quickly.

Though the film makes no obvious attempt to obscure the time in which it’s set, the blue jeans that the townspeople wear, their motorcycles, their electrically lit homes — these all feel like anachronisms in an otherwise primeval world. When a procession of men dressed in traditional Roman costumes emerges from a winding lane, it takes a moment to reestablish that, yes, this is still contemporary Italy.

We timed it so that we could take the C straight to Penn Station after the film was over — we had to catch a train. But we were working within a slim margin, so we agreed to sneak out early if it got too close. It’s a testament to Frammartino’s pacing that this seemed like a terribly tragic recourse. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a film so thoroughly in spite of myself. Le Quattro Volte forgoes what I most value — humans communicating through language — and indulges what I would do just about anything to avoid: anthropomorphized animals. The film’s 88 minutes are wordless and lacking in any real climax or resolve. Still, leaving early would’ve meant missing some profound flicker or primal occurrence. We stayed through to the end and then rushed to grab a cab uptown. We made our train, and everyone on it looked like a goat, but in the very best way. They kind of have ever since, actually.

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The Familiar Destruction of White Material

By Alice Gregory
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Due to the holiday, we are posting this week’s Girl on Film today instead of Thursday. We’ll be back on schedule next week.

Isabelle Huppert in "White Material"

Africa “does” things to people. To white people, that is. It’s a trope with a wicked history. From Josef Conrad to V.S. Naipul to Norman Rush, our fiction is full of characters unhinged by the continent. Narrators become obsessive; they go mad. The landscape often takes on antagonistic, anthropomorphic qualities, and life there appears all but impossible. White women in Africa all end up looking the same, like some variation of Jane Goodall. They dress in white poplin, and they pin their pale hair at the nape of the neck. They don’t wear makeup, but they do always stain their lips a deep red. Tanned arms, ropey hands, weathered face, sturdy walk. Find me an exception.

Isabelle Huppert, who plays Maria Vial, the protagonist of Claire Denis’s newest film, White Material, fits the bill. Maria doesn’t have many lines, but she’s the centrifugal force in every scene. In an anonymous, francophone country, Maria is attempting to preserve the coffee plantation she runs with her ex-husband, Andre. Though civic unrest threatens her family’s safety, she remains dedicated to her ravaged land and unprofitable business. Everyone is trying to get Maria to leave. As the farm’s foreman, Maurice, tells her, “Coffee’s coffee. Not worth fighting for.”

Maria’s survival instinct reins like an unchecked, internal monarchy. Her stubbornness is admirable, but it’s also her fatal flaw – which wouldn’t be quite so tragic if only it didn’t jeopardize others’ lives as well. She’s left the sole spectator to a fiery hell that she could have avoided if not prevented. It’s not as though Maria isn’t warned though. When she finds a bloody chicken head submerged in basket of coffee berries – obviously a threat from the rebels – she buries it immediately, telling no one. But Andre catches her red-handed (the earth here, like the bird blood, is russet-colored). He digs up the chicken head, thrusting it in her face. “You know what this means? We’ll all die.”

We’re continuously faced with Maria’s focused laser-like stare. She’s efficient and doggedly determined. She walks as fast as she can without running. She’s always attending to something urgent, dire, and physically uncomfortable: traveling into town to replace the plantation pickers who have fled; transporting heavy baskets of coffee beans; driving though a gate that needs to be unlocked and then relocked back up again once she’s on the other side. She lives a life of semi-voluntarily toil and incessant hassle. You’re exhausted for her, and Denis keeps the camera close enough to her at all times that you don’t think to question Maria’s larger motives; instead, you feel her every burden. It’s all too easy to remain devoted to an impossible life when its difficulties are acute and constant enough that they defer more major problem solving.

Throughout the film, Maria argues with her “inert” teenage son, Manuel. Tattooed and lethargic, he sleeps all day and seems tortured by his mother’s commitment to an increasingly obsolete way of life. Finally, Maurice cracks. He takes a rifle into the bathroom, shaves off his flaxen mane (“Extreme blondeness begs to be pillaged,” says a rebel earlier.) and storms into the living room, pinning down his stepmother and cramming her mouth with his own hair. He looks like a Neo-Nazi, an image which is made all the more awful by its juxtaposition with the rural setting. Maurice recruits rebels, and they band together, destroying everything in their path. The terror culminates in scenes of child soldiers gorging themselves on imported junk food and prescription pills. They pass out in tepid baths, only to be shot in their sleep.

Denis handles bathetic imagery well. Her arsenal of unsettling set pieces is extensive and affecting: a static radio; an open jelly jar; a lone, ribby horse tied to a tropical hardwood. They stand out as purposeful signifiers of decivilization and domestic wreckage, but somehow their prominence doesn’t seem manipulative or cheap. An unclaimed rubber sandal spotted in a remote forest could easily be a calculating shot. So could an empty house, decorated with tribal masks and gas tanks. A lesser filmmaker might coerce you into feeling more intensely, but they would also make you to identify your reactions individually, piecemeal.

Denis’s directorial tactic is more cumulative; the horror she evokes is constant and literally breathtaking. Even banal, plot-advancing events clobber. The purpose of helicopter landings in film, for instance, is usually transitional. It’s meant to get characters in or out of a scene. But here we’re obliged to witness exactly what a helicopter does to the ground as it touches down. Undergrowth is torn to shreds. Terrible dust clouds form. The noise is deafening. That’s what really happens when a helicopter lands, and you wonder why you’ve never been asked to see it before.

Keeping a mental dossier of the rebels, workers, and soldiers is little difficult – the light is low and the men are all armed. But the mechanics of turmoil aren’t so important here. White Material is a thematic film, not a plot-driven one.  And like in so many a classic myth, degeneration scales. Anarchy is calibrated; personhood, family, business, nation – all deteriorate at once. A good mother gone feral… Machine guns strapped to murderous school children… Africa is good for casting atrocity in a primordial light, good at forcing us to confront our most primeval nightmares.

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Clone Like Me: On Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Carrie Mulligan and Keira Knightly in "Never Let Me Go"

Based on the 2005 novel by Japanese-English author Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a successful example of sensationalist plot and subdued language gone celluloid. It’s the mid-1990s, and the British government is cloning humans to provide donor organs for transplant surgeries. The story is framed by the reminiscing voice of our heroine, Kathy, played by the kind-eyed Carrie Mulligan. She looks back on her formative years spent at Hailsham, a boarding school established to educate and incubate child clones until they’re ready for their first donations at age eighteen.  It follows her relationship with Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield, and Ruth, the archetypical frenemie who snatches him away, played by Keira Knightly, who is even more gaunt than usual in the role. For her sake, I hope this doesn’t typecast her as an eternal inpatient; though it feels like her peaked pallor, ghoulish piano fingers, and seemingly detachable jaw might finally have found a purpose.

Adult Kathy is a “carer,” one who nurses donors throughout surgeries until their inevitable, euphemistic “completion.” It’s only a matter of time though before she too will have to donate. Essential information is deployed cautiously, with little dramatic irony. Our vision of Hailsham as a fortifying utopia is destroyed concurrently with the childrens’ naïve innocence. “You will become adults, but only briefly,” says Miss Lucy, an idealistic — and quickly sacked — teacher with a prolicivity towards full-disclosure.

It’s in the film’s final segment that all mounting emotion coalesces. Kathy and Tommy are driving home after being forced to face their close demise. He gets out of the car, stumbles into the middle of the road — profile backlight by the headlights — and begins to howl, werewolf-like. Andrew Garfield’s face is fragile and ropey, like a baby dinosaur’s, and he can distort it terribly when his sweetness breaks into uncontrollable wails. The shot is maintained for a queasily long time, forcing a full spectrum of reaction: first, satisfaction of recognizable repetition (a similar scene transpires earlier when Tommy is a young boy — he slaps Kathy away when she tries to calm him down), then mild disappointment at the predictability of the echoing, then sympathy with Tommy, then repulsion at such a carnal outpouring, then sympathy once again, and finally relief that the scene is not an exact rehashing — that he doesn’t hit Kathy when she tries to comfort him.

 
Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings.
 

The masterful structuring within the last few minutes is when the authorial precision of Ishiguro’s screenplay comes through most. And in his cyclical style, we conclude where we began, with Kathy peering through a pane of glass at Tommy. He’s dying on the operating table, organs extracted one-by-one. The scene is at once clinical and gripping, like an Eakins painting made animate. We see doctors’ hands wielding metallic instruments; we see Tommy’s eyes dim out. Kathy’s closing monologue indicates an acceptance of what’s in store.

Storyline aside, it should be said that Adam Kimmel’s cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design positively feed off the assumption of the audience’s casual anglophilia. And they deliver: There are romps through misty moors, rugby shirts in the perfect shade of ecru, cups of tea resting on leather-bound tomes, girls sitting cross-legged in cable knit sweaters, Wellies by the front door. The coziness ensures our empathy with the clones, who speak, act, and feel just like all the “originals” we’ve ever encountered in life. The fetishizing really only starts to feel sinister during the scenes at Hailsham, which to me came across like a pedophile’s playground, teeming with Tadzios, littered with Lolitas. They do their “maths” homework and play “at sport.” Throngs of pale little thighs trot across green fields. There’s something alarming about such unnervingly beautiful children, especially in great quantity — their rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes straight off an advertisement for alpine muesli. It’s hard to look at children so Aryan and so sprightly and not think Nazi youth. Considering that discussions of cloning always seem to devolve into arguments about eugenics, I guess this is the point.

The seductive details seem endless, and the pleasure they inspire feels, at times, just short of heavy-handed. The children barter for toys with colorful tokens. Glass bottles of creamy milk are systematically snatched up by tiny paws. The aestheticizing is aggressive, but always deliberate. The palette throughout, with its overexposed brightness and punctuating color dissolves (celadon, cornflower, butter yellow), feels like a nod to English films of the 1960s. Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now come to mind. It’s a faded, menacing cheer in keeping with the horrific reality of children who live only to die.

Alternate histories lend themselves well to the screen: Political paranoia is a satisfying, suspenseful mood to sustain, especially when it’s embellished with period trappings. And startling anachronisms are always fun to spot. The British have a rich history of dystopian science fiction, of civic allegory run amok. It makes sense that an insular island — an obsolete empire — would produce extreme parable. The enclosed spaces (gothic manors, futuristic hospitals, thatched-roof conclaves) exaggerate isolation and remove. Microcosms make for good thought experiments. The hypothesis — and conclusion — here seem to be one and the same. Clones: They’re just like us.

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Apocalypse Now: Give the Film Version of The Road a Chance

By Sara Vilkomerson
Friday, August 6th, 2010

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Road"

Hey, have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

There was a while there when that seemed to be the only question asked at various dinner and cocktail parties around town. The 2006 Pulizer Prize winning novel was kind of like the Harry Potter/Twilight of the intellectual world — cool kids had it in their back pockets, you could use both hands to count how many people you saw reading it on the subway daily, and Oprah did it as a book club pick. And it was all for good reason — McCarthy’s sparse and unflinching tale of a father and son traveling through a post-apocalyptic world after some unnamed disaster manage to hit just the right tender nerve (particularly among PTSD’d New Yorkers). The book itself, at just 256 pages, was gripping enough that you could read in a single weekend — maybe only to find yourself blinking late into the night, wondering how you might best pack up a shopping cart or how hungry you’d have to be in order to eat another human being (or was that was just us?).

The Hollywood adaptation seemed inevitable, even though it seemed near impossible to make this particular movie, from source material so bleak, and with so little dialogue. And then the movie came out and guess what? No one went to go see it! The film grossed just over 8 million dollars (production budget was reportedly $25 million), and while some critics raved (The New York Observer’s Rex Reed said, “It is sad, bleak and unbearably depressing. It is also gripping, shattering and brilliant.”) others, well, not so much (“The Road possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions,” sniffed The Washington Post).

But we would like to now go on record as being decidedly pro The Road. And now that the film is available on pay-per-view, here is why you should crank up the AC, turn off the lights and give it a chance. For starters, fans of the book should take heart: this is about as faithful an adaptation as you can hope for. It stays true to the essence of McCarthy’s novel and eliminated only one of the very terrible things that happen in the book (we won’t ruin the surprise). In fact, if possible the movie made one particularly scary scene even more terrifying in the movie version. And then there’s the great Viggo Mortensen. It just doesn’t matter what this guy does, he’s always great. (Always: Remember when he was a basically just a mute Amish farmer in Witness? He brought a lot to the role!). In The Road he is spectacular. Even if you aren’t a fan of anything else — the stunning art direction, the (perhaps questionable) Nick Cave soundtrack — see this movie to see one of the best actors working today turn in what is arguably one of his finest performances. Charlize Theron takes what is the wispiest of characters in the novel, and fleshes her role into something fascinating. And, not for nothing, young Kodi Smit-McPhee is not annoying in what could have been a disastrous role for a child actor. (This is all to say nothing of the excellent small turns turned in by Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Garrett Dillahunt.) So it’s not the same experience as reading the novel. Of course it isn’t! But enjoy it for what it is, an excellent and underappreciated film with remarkable performances.

PS! We are delighted by the news that Viggo Mortensen has not been scared off of movies with “Road” in the title or daunting literary adaptations: he’s signed on to play Old Bull Lee in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

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